and new testament antisemitism, happy LENT y'all
Not that health care is a matter of who deserves what based on their contributions, but if you’ve ever enjoyed my writing and have something to spare, please help my first proper writing teacher Shayla Lawson. I wouldn’t embrace the South with the love and fury I do if I hadn’t met her when I was sixteen. As of writing this, the fundraiser is about two-thirds to its goal to pay for services and mobility aids for Shayla to keep on living, writing and teaching with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, as well as care for her sweet pup Sammie Davis Jr.
ALSO: some of my Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts cohort are organizing a Zoom benefit reading on Saturday, March 12 at 8 p.m. ET . Donate any amount and hear from Ross Gay, some badass Affrialchian poets, my other teachers Mitch and Dan!!!, and my summer camp friends from nine years ago who remain my favorite writers to this day.
Spoilers for Midnight Mass on Netflix. This is the casual version of a final term paper that gets into medieval blood libel and Victorian and horror invasion narratives, which I’m happy to share if you’re a nerd like that.
The majority of Midnight Mass takes place during Lent and comes to a bloody end on Easter Sunday. Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) ushers in the season with a wildly subtextual Ash Wednesday homily; his and lay minister Bev Keane’s words for vampirism include “resurrection” and “eternal life;” and his confessional monologue throughout episode 3 is intercut with wood carvings styled after the stations of the cross. All this paschal imagery points the viewer to Jesus.
But the content Fr. Paul’s confession makes his self perception clear, and in tragic disagreement with the Messianic role Midnight Mass and Bev Keane assign to him. He retells the conversion of Saul in Acts 9 like this:
The conversion of Saul took place on the road to Damascus. Saul was a persecutor of Christians, an enemy of the Church, heading up to Damascus to round up believers, take them prisoner. But as he neared Damascus, he saw a light so bright it knocked him to the ground. And he was blinded, and then Jesus spoke to him. Days later the scales fell from his eyes and Saul became a follower of Christ and then became the apostle Paul.
“Became the apostle Paul” is a turn of phrase consistent with what I learned in American Catholic school and church: that Saul the Jew = bad, but Paul the Christian = good. For global perspective, my dad born during the Second Vatican Council interjected my post-watch rant with Saul “was the embodiment of evil.”
But modern liberal theology, at least the sort that is interested in Judaism, troubles this simplification. The consensus starts around 19th-century theologian Philip Schaff’s analysis that “the historical Paul was originally named Saul (Sha’ul), and he began to use the name Paul (Paulus) during his first major missionary venture into the diaspora”—the multiple naming and codeswitching familiar to many a cultural minority, but more relevantly any Jew in America with both secular and Hebrew names.
Having a supernatural encounter in the Holy Land—only called such in Midnight Mass and in every American Catholic church I’ve been in, never Israel or Palestine or in more adventurous piligramages, Jordan or Syria—makes “Paul” a very logical alias, certainly to an octogenarian cleric who grew up hearing Latin Mass and went on to learn three different English missals under five popes. So it’s highly unlikely Msgr. Pruitt understood the early Christians and the titular apostles of Acts as members of a heretical Jewish sect who spent the 1st century CE arguing whether Gentiles had to convert to Judaism (be circumcised) to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who they likely called “rabbi.”
To the modern majority, “conversion” means adopting a new faith and discarding an old one, but it also bears similarity to contemporary vampire fiction jargon of “turning.” In biblical form criticism, conversion is a narrative genre seen in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, wherein Jews like Moses, Elijah, the Davidic kings, and Saul of Tarsus experience theophanies or encounter angels and remain Jews thereafter.
Conversion implies a point A and point B, and Msgr. Pruitt’s reading of Saul names these as “enemy of Church” to apostle. His own conversion is from old age to youth, from the brink of death to a second life. But whether he knows it or not, he falls into a centuries old binary of Jewishness is death and ugliness and decay, and Christianity is beauty and youth and redemption. Second chances, as he says in his Ash Wednesday homily. “Rebirth, resurrection, eternal life. Life that rises again. Even out of blackness, love rises again.”
(And that last sentence alone could take us into the curse of Ham.)
Midnight Mass’s script may skirt around the coreligiosity of Israel-Palestine, but its visuals do not, as we see Msgr. Pruitt pray at the Western Wall alongside men wearing kippah and Hasidim with payot. Christian leaders stay mum or neutral about this shit because they lost their stake in the land in the Crusades, and I imagine a discomfort with the church’s Middle Eastern origins.
What scares me about many American Christians is that Jewish people seem as alive and real to them as dinosaurs, and if your brain goes to Creationists… yuh. Msgr. Pruitt meeting this implicitly semitic vampire in episode 3 is followed by Erin Greene (Kate Siegel) whipping out her late mother’s cross stitch and saying “It’s a special kind of self-pity to idenitify with the destruction of Jerusalem,” more specifically that of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchanezzar II. From this alone Erin’s theology has a historical awareness and empathy that far outstrips the likes of Bev Keane, and it weighs a lot here (a lot a lot) that Siegel is Jewish. Showing what remains of the Second Temple one episode before this does not feel accidental.
As for Bev, she turns against Msgr. Pruitt in the final episode in predictable fashion. “That’s the thing about priesthood,” he says in response to her calling him “shepherd,” her weird Messiah casting again. “It’s never supposed to be about me. It’s supposed to be about God!” She reaches for Matthew 23, a favorite of antisemites:
Jesus himself, he wraned against the scribes, against the priests, in Matthew: “Do not call anyone on Earth ‘father,” you have one father and he is in heaven.1 Woe to you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites!” Vipers’ brood.
The irony, of course, is that Saul of Tarsus, Pruitt’s new namesake, was a Pharisee before his conversion and was martyred a Pharisee, was a Pharisee on his missions throughout the Levant, and wrote his epistles—which comprise 13 of the 27 books of the New Teatment—as a Pharisee.
Matthean scholars and anyone into postcolonial Gospel hermeneutics also pretty much agree this is in reference to the imperial Roman title “pater patriae” conferred to select emperors by the Senate but ok